Entre les murs, La Haine, and Playtime: all three films deal with the challenge of modernity and the Paris banlieue. All three start with a utopian vision that aims to civilize people and to integrate outsiders into modern French society. Architecture and the built environment are key elements in this process of civilization and integration. All three films illustrate the naiveté of a rationalist idealism that believes architecture can be used to transform society. A seemingly perfect space, resulting from a top-down process of design, does not lead to perfection in society. Its inhabitants consider it condescending and rebel against it. In each movie a strained social structure degenerates into dystopia, bringing everything else (both society and architecture) down with it.
Entre les murs (“between walls;” English title: The Class), a 2008 film by Laurent Cantet, explores the challenges of a racially diverse French society through the lens of a French teacher in a tough Parisian neighborhood.
When Mr. Francois Marin asks the class what words they found difficult, the first word to come up is “condescension.” This is hardly a coincidence. The film proceeds to tackle a series of social issues.
When asked to make name tags, some immigrant students put flags of their parents’ country of origin next to their names. The theme of identity, of whether a child feels a sense of belonging to or estrangement from France, is recurrent. When Mr. Marin writes the name Bill in a sentence to explain a word, he triggers the following exchange:
Khoumba: What’s with the Bills?The theme of identity is complicated when immigrant status is mixed with class status. Even more students speak out against what they say is a bourgeois way of speaking:
Mr. Marin: What bills?
Khoumba: The name Bill. You always use weird names.
Mr. Marin:Weird? A recent U.S president was called Bill.
Khoumba: Why don’t you use Aïssata or Rachid or Ahmed or…?
Esmeralda: You always use whitey names.
Mr. Marin: What names?
Esmeralda: Honky names.
Mr. Marin: What’s a honky?
Esmeralda: Honkies, Frenchies, frogs.
Mr. Marin: You’re not French?
Esmeralda: No, I’m not French.
Mr. Marin: I didn’t know.
Esmeralda: I am, but not proud of it.
Mr. Marin: Fine, I’m not either.
Esmeralda: Wiped him out!
Khoumba: Why use these names?
Mr. Marin: Khoumba, if I start choosing names to suit all your origins, it’ll never end.
Esmeralda: Just change a little.
Mr. Marin: Before mastering something, the imperfect subjunctive, you’re telling me it’s no use. Start by mastering it, then you can call its use into question.That is a key rhetorical question in the film: what constitutes "normal"? And it works both ways. While the teacher tries to educate his students, the teenagers end up teaching him a great deal as well. When Mr. Marin demands that Souleymane share his “concern” with the class, Souleymane says that there are rumors that Mr. Marin likes men. He prefaces this statement thus: “If I tell you, I am good for Guantanamo. I’ll be tased.”
- Sir, why are you criticizing us?
- They’re right, that’s the way people talked in the old days. Even my gran didn’t say that.
- Or your great granddad. It’s from the Middle Ages.
Mr. Marin: No, it isn’t.
- It is.
- It’s bourgeois.
- Tell me, when was the last time you heard someone talk like that?
Mr. Marin: Yesterday, with friends, we used the imperfect subjunctive—
- No, someone normal.
The film is literally set within the walls of the classroom, the high walls of the courtyard below, and the walls of the staff rooms. Like the Panopticon, the school building is designed for surveillance. The architecture allows teachers to watch students at all times. The teachers, however, have the luxury of meeting in private. In closed rooms they discuss policies to better civilize their students. Like France’s social housing reforms and policies regarding the immigrant and working class in general, the school exercises a very top-down approach of control, reward and punishment.
A teacher who has had a bad day in class storms into the staff room and calls the students animals. "I’m sick of these clowns. Sick of them. I can’t take it anymore. They’re nothing, they know nothing, they look right through you when you teach them…. I’m not going to help them."
As the school year progresses, things degenerate. All attempts to discipline the teenagers fail.
Mr. Marin: Who wants to read? Great. Excellent work atmosphere today. Khoumba, go on.Mr. Marin’s character is conflicted. At times he connects well with the students, probing their thoughts with a sincere interest. At other times, he attempts to discipline the class by speaking in terms of rights. By doing so, he sets up a trap for himself. Later in the film, he is reprimanded by everyone for calling two of the girls “skanks.”
Khoumba: No way.
Mr. Marin: You won’t read?
Khoumba: I don’t want to read.
Mr. Marin: The class revolves around your desires?
Khoumba: I don’t want to read.
Mr. Marin: I don’t care. What did Khoumba just do? Wei?
Mr. Marin: I meant her attitude. What did she show?
Mr. Marin: That’s right, you’re an expert.
Khoumba: You’re an angrulo with me. What is this?
Mr. Marin: That’s not true. Try saying it in French. What am I?
Mr. Marin: Say it in everyday French.
Khoumba: You’ve got it in for me. That’s normal French.
Mr. Marin: I just want you to read. I have the right to ask you to read, don’t I?
Mr. Marin: Don’t you think so?
Khoumba: No. No one has read it and you’re picking on me.
Mr. Marin: No I am not. I want to work and I’ve chosen you as I have the right to.
Khoumba: Drop it.
Mr. Marin: Start reading.
Khoumba: I won’t read. You tell me to shut up, then to read. What is this?
Mr. Marin: What’s what?
Khoumba: Make up your mind. Think it through.
Mr. Marin: We’ll talk it over after class. It won’t be fun.
Khoumba's is one of a few characters whom Cantet explores in depth. When reprimanded in a private meeting my Mr. Marin, Khoumba retorts: "I can’t stay a kid forever." Later she writes a poignant essay about the dual nature of respect:
The ennui and angst of the teenagers' lives within these walls is made explicit in the discussion about self-portrait essays
Adolescents learn to respect their teachers because of threats or the fear of having problems. For starters, I respect you but respect is mutual. For instance, I don’t say you’re hysterical so why do you say I am. I’ve always respected you so I don’t understand why I have to write this. I know you have it in for me but I don’t know why. I shall sit at the back to avoid any other conflicts unless you come looking for them. I admit I can be insolent, but only when provoked. I won’t look at you again so you can’t say my look is insolent. In theory, in a French class you talk about French, not your grandma, your sister, or girls’ periods. And so, from now on I won’t speak to you again. Signed Khoumba.
- We just come to school, go home, eat and sleep.Within the rigid structure of the school, student's voices and feelings are stifled. When Mr. Marin tries to probe deeper to change the status quo, he goes too far, exposing the ugly truth about French society as a whole: a facade of integration, and of liberté, égalité, fraternité, masks a fractured society divided along lines of race and class. In the process, he ends up hurting his students and himself.
Mr. Marin: Fine. The bare facts of your life are dull. But what you feel is interesting.
- That’s my business.
Ideas of respect, discipline, humiliation, punishment, revenge, shame and submission are thrown up in the air and reassessed. What happens when a teacher fails to follow codes of society? Is he immune from censure? When the principal of the school enters the classroom, everyone is expected to stand.
Stand up, please. Good morning. That goes for those at the back too. Come on, stand up. Chérif, you heard me? Everyone has to stand. It’s a way of greeting an adult. It doesn’t mean submission or humiliation. Good. Sit back down.
Carl, who has been moved to this school after discipline problems in a school in the banlieue, seems to have resigned himself to the role of second-class citizen. "J’aime ma cite," he said mechanically when he reads his essay. Cite means housing project, or a neighborhood of big tower housing in the banlieue. Interestingly, he has also internalized this new kind of French identity, the identity of a French subject or colony.
Boubacar: What is your National team?
Boubacar: Why do you say you’re Caribbean rather than French?
Carl: We’re French. It’s a French region.
Boubacar: Why don’t you ever say you’re French?
Carl: It’s the same.
Boubacar: I don’t think so.
I contend that because the architecture is so neutral, clothes take on an added significance for these students. They assert their identity through their "looks." Arthur goes up in front of the class and defends his look as part of his self-portrait essay:
Clothes are an expression of freedom. I’ll dress how I want and you dress how you want, okay. I dress like this to be different and not follow the others like sheep…. I also think that if there were 22 Goths here and one guy like you you’d keep quiet then.
At the staff meeting, Esmeralda, a student representative, sports a t-shirt with big lettering that says "Tunisie." It is a defiant statement that the former colony is here to stay and must be recognized as part of the system.
Later, in their decision to expel Souleymane, the teachers decide to choose the law over the spirit of the law so that "society can function." Society, however, completely degenerates at the end of the film. There is fearsome anger in Carl's retort, "You think you've tamed me?" There is a sense of helplessness in another student's quiet admission she hadn't learned anything all year: "I don't understand what we do." There is sarcastic cynicism in Esmeralda's tone when she says the only thing she has learned is the concept of triangular trade and slavery.
More than once, the external world enters the school in the form of parents. Wei's mother, it turns out, was illegally in France and is being deported. Wei finds himself unable to express himself because of language barriers, and the challenge of settling in is physically manifested in his allergies. Souleymane's mother gives a stern, solemn and dignified soliloquy of apology in a language that no one but Souleymane understands. He translates for her: "She apologizes on my behalf." It seems Khoumba was right when she said "it's all the same... it's all settled."
Only at the very end do the teachers embrace this state of dystopia. For the first time, they are seen to enter the countyard and play soccer with the students. Before this the courtyard had been viewed from above but now the camera too enters the courtyard.
The film ends on this somber tone. The sounds from the soccer game downstairs fill the empty classroom. It is an echo of the first scene in which maids were cleaning the desks. One can imagine the same cycle repeating itself.